New evidence reveals that they created the world’s oldest known cave paintings and even wore seashells as body ornaments. Both behaviors suggest that they thought symbolically and had an artistic sensibility like modern humans. Two studies published Thursday in the journal Science detail the latest findings.
“Undoubtedly it is showing that Neanderthals were thinking and behaving just like modern humans,” Alistair Pike, co-author of the studies and professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, wrote in an email.
“We should no longer think of them as a different species, just humans in different places,” he said.
The new findings of symbolic thinking show that Neanderthals and modern humans were cognitively indistinguishable, the researchers said.
Cave paintings and artifacts like painted seashells have long been regarded as the work of early modern humans, who were thought to have more advanced cognitive abilities than Neanderthals.
Dating cave paintings can be a difficult process, and unreliable techniques never allowed for the possibility that these could be the work of Neanderthals.
Until now, that is. A new technique called Uranium-Thorium dating is less destructive, is more accurate and can go back further in time than other methods.
U-Th dating looks at the deposits of carbonate on top of the paint, which contain traces of uranium and thorium that indicate when those deposits formed. That allows the researchers to determine an age for what’s under the deposits.
The researchers applied this technique to paintings in the La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales caves in Spain, which had never received “robust” dating. The paintings include red and black images of animals, dots, lines, disks and other geometric signs. There also are engravings, hand prints and hand stencils.
Those hand stencils are particularly significant, and not just because they represent the hand size of a Neanderthal.
“A red line, a red dot or even a positive hand print could potentially be made ‘accidentally,’ ” wrote Dirk Hoffmann, lead author of the studies and archaeologist with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in an email.
“Of course, I am sure that this is not the case, since you would still need to bring [in] light and pigment, but one could argue that all you need is some pigment on your hand when you lean against a wall. A hand stencil cannot be explained like that.
You have to hold your hand against the wall and the deliberately spray pigment over this. This is why we emphasize the hand stencil.”